According to the Bush administration, the threat posed by Iraq is serious enough to risk the lives of American soldiers, to end the lives of what would undoubtedly be thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians, and to risk a chemical or biological attack on the American homeland, but not serious enough to interrupt prime-time television. None of the big three broadcast networks carried Bush's case-for-war speech Monday night because, they say, the White House didn't ask. Pre-empting Saddam Hussein is one thing, apparently, but pre-empting Drew Carey is another.
The Washington Post reports that "the White House said it did not put in the usual formal request because it wanted to keep the American public from thinking we were going to war." As the hour for the speech approached, the Post says, White House officials had second thoughts and offered to "beef up" the speech to entice the networks, but it was too late.
This notion that a call to arms can be beefed up or beefed down at will, like the idea that people should give their support for a war without really thinking it's going to happen, is characteristic of the Bush sell job. Foreigners, the New York Times reports, read Bush's speech as backing down from an inexorable commitment to "regime change," while here in America it was seen as his toughest statement yet. Whatever.
Ambiguity has its place in dealings among nations, and so does a bit of studied irrationality. Sending mixed signals and leaving the enemy uncertain what you might do next are valid tactics. But the cloud of confusion that surrounds Bush's Iraq policy is not tactical. It's the real thing. And the dissembling is aimed at the American citizenry, not at Saddam Hussein. Saddam knows how close he is or isn't to a usable nuclear bomb—we're the ones who are expected to take Bush's word for it.
"Iraq could decide on any given day" to give biological or chemical weapons to terrorists for use against the United States, Bush said Monday night. The wording is cleverly designed to imply more than it actually says. It doesn't say an Iraq-sponsored biological attack could actually happen tomorrow. But the only purpose of the phrase "on any given day" is to suggest that it might.
So, the question then arises: If Saddam Hussein has the desire and ability to attack the United States with chemical and biological weapons, either directly or using surrogates, why hasn't he done so? Possibly because he fears reprisal. Bush's emphasis on the danger of Saddam giving these weapons to terrorists, rather than his using them himself, was another bit of careful wording, intended to suggest that Saddam could avoid reprisal by leaving no fingerprints. But Saddam surely realizes that evidence will be found linking him to any terrorist act for the foreseeable future, whether such evidence exists or not. Meanwhile, though, if the United States is inexorably committed to "regime change"—which, in any scenario, Saddam is unlikely to survive in one piece—any reason for him to show restraint disappears.
The CIA makes this obvious point in a document made public this week. The agency's assessment is that Iraq is unlikely to use biological or chemical weapons against the United States unless we attack Iraq and Saddam concludes he has nothing to lose. The administration disagrees, naturally. Whatever small basis either side may have for its conclusion, we who must follow the dispute in the papers have even less. Who knows who's right? But Bush cannot have it both ways. He cannot insist that Saddam Hussein is able and eager to do so much harm to the United States that we must go to war to remove him, and at the same time refuse to acknowledge the increased risk of such harm as one of the costs of going to war.
The Bush campaign for war against Iraq has been insulting to American citizens, not just because it has been dishonest, but because it has been unserious. A lie is insulting; an obvious lie is doubly insulting. Arguments that stumble into each other like drunks are not serious. Washington is abuzz with the "real reason" this or that subgroup of the administration wants this war. A serious and respectful effort to rally the citizenry would offer the real reasons, would base the conclusion on the evidence rather than vice versa, would admit to the ambiguities and uncertainties, would be frank about the potential cost. A serious effort to take the nation into war would not hesitate to interrupt people while they're watching a sitcom.
But citizens ought to be more serious, too. They tell pollsters they favor the Bush policy, then they say they favor conditions like U.N. approval that are not part of the Bush policy. Many, in polls, seem to make a distinction between war, which they favor, and casualties, which they don't. Neither side in this argument has an open-and-shut case, and certainly agreeing with the president's case doesn't make you a fool. Agreeing with the president even though you didn't hear his case—because he apparently didn't much care if you heard it—is a different story.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.